Thursday, 28 July 2016

The well of the North Wind

They came originally from the great monastery in the north of Ireland "in a beautiful valley where the winder never blew and where there were appleas and horses.' They came to a storm-swept island on Scotland's west coast, and continued trhere the rhythm of work and worship and mission.
In his new novel, The well of the North Wind Scottish poet and writer Kenneth Steven who has a deep love for Iona and its history, re-imagines life there in the 6th century when Columba (Column in the book) is an old man.
It tells the story of young Fian, a gifted artist and calligrapher, who is brought by the monks from his home on the Irish Coast to work on illustrating the Book of Kells. We see the impact on him both of the monks, and the local people. Fian works on the Book with creative fire; he falls in love with a local girl, Mara. Their tender relationship has hardly begun when it triggers repercussions bringing great sadness.

It's a wonderful book. Kenneth Steven, as always, uses words powerfully, bringing alive the island; its wildlife; sea and sky; the stars above. It’s major theme, I think, is faith: we see our own journeyings reflected.

We see the faith of an old man -  Colum. He is wise, gentle, tender – washing the brothers’ feet, for example – but he also struggles with age, impatience, rage. Sometimes, he says, God is silent, ‘Perhaps now, after all these years, even more silent.’

We see the restlessness of Larach, who leaves the island, sailing north with three companions to escape the bustle and chatter of the cloisters, ‘to come to a place where there is nothing but God.’ But is he fleeing from something deep within him?  Of the four, he alone returns, shaken, more dead than alive, with a strange tale of another presence guiding his battered vessel back to Iona.

And there’s Ruach, of them all the most faithful; Ruach whose name means ‘the breath of the Spirit.’ Ruach, the outsider who sees dreams and portents which burden him until he glimpses their significance and shares it with others and so finds release. What did God mean by troubling him with these haunting visions?

There are the local people. Not Christian believers, and yet…..  Mara’s mother Baan has the gift of gentle healing; knows old songs from the beginning of time; listens to a deep, prompting inner voice. Mara’s name suggests bitterness and death, yet there is about her a gentleness and truth. She anoints Fian’s hands preparing them for their work on the Book. The monks have brought to the island the name of the One who is light, and yet at New Year it is Baan who symbolically brings light from the village to the brothers.

And we see Fian himself, with his many questions. ‘Where was God in this grey world, and what God was it that toyed with them in the grey misery of storm?’ His faith is a flickering candle. ‘You struggle to find God,’ Colum tells him, ‘and you will not let God find you.’ Yet there is one particular place where he finds it easy to believe, where though he is alone ‘yet he felt a presence all the same. He felt healed.’

From the Book of Kells
There comes upon Fian, as a result of a misjudgement on Colum’s part, a time of great darkness and despair. Rage against Colum and the community and God is destroying him.
The book has many references to ‘fragments.’  Fragmented memories of Fian’s father; the fragments recalled of a godly man’s words; fragmented islands; Larach’s boat reduced to fragments of fragments. And Fian’s prayers. He ‘prayed in pieces.’ Will there never be wholeness?

The well of the north wind is hidden place, precious to both Fian and Mara. What’s its significance? In George Macdonald’s famous book At the back of the North Wind, the Wind goes about her business, both destroying and healing. Macdonald’s story, and Steven’s see the North Wind as a symbol of the deep mystery that in God’s good plan pain and death can lead to fruitfulness and life.

Larach, back from the valley of apples and horses, ‘face strong and full, his great hands alive once more,’ takes Fian to a hidden beach where he bathes in cool water and feels washed new. And then Larach lights a fire in the shingle and cooks small fish.It reminds us of another man, back from the land of apples and horses, hands alive once more, though scarred still, cooking fish on another beach – the man who brings the fragments together.

Later, Fian slept, and on awaking ‘felt more himself than ever before.’

The well of the North Wind is published by Marylebone House, ISBN 9781910674253

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 11th February 2016)

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